5130 Cameron Boulevard in New Orleans, the 1000th home gutted by volunteers working for Catholic Charities. Photo by Steve Majors.
It's just another sad house on a street of sad houses in a sad post-Katrina neighborhood. But this house was supposed to be remarkable. After all, it was the 1000th flood-damaged home to be gutted by volunteers from a local agency. I'd been to many "milestones" like this before -- all indeed important, but also manufactured by well-meaning groups who wanted the news media to notice their efforts.
After almost six months in New Orleans, I understand the danger of Katrina fatigue. I mean, I've stood in so many mud-caked homes, partially gutted buildings, cramped FEMA trailers and newly-framed homes, that I can't count them all. So you can see why this one seemed like all the rest.
And it's not just the locations that have a sameness about them -- the stories of those who lived there can sound the same, too. After a while, you even begin to ask the same five questions just to get a quick sense of their circumstances: "How ya doin' today... How much water you get? You and your family evacuate? You have insurance? Think you're going to stay, sell or just abandon it?"
But you always find something incredibly memorable about the person or their circumstances. For instance, two days ago there was a very stoic 75-year-old man patiently painting the front door of a rehabbed home: Eight to 10 feet of water; his 95-year-old mother and sister were evacuated; the insurance paid out and now he was rebuilding.
Sometimes you have to ask a thousand more questions. Sometimes just one more: "Where's your mother living now?" Without missing a beat or a paint stroke, he explained she wasn't. She'd been evacuated from the house by helicopter. She died a short time later. He wouldn't dream of abandoning this house now.
I tell you that because of what happened Wednesday at 5130 Cameron Blvd. We didn't come to the home to do a story about its homeowner or even the fact that it was the 1000th home gutted by this particular charity. We merely came to collect a few minutes of videotape for a different story on the end of hurricane season. But the wonderful and efficient public relations representative pressed me: Would you like to speak to our volunteers? They came all the way from Dubuque, Iowa. How about the homeowner, did you know he's a well-known R&B writer/producer responsible for some hit songs in the 70s? He also came all the way from Atlanta for today's event. I thanked her, but explained that was not the intent of our overall story.
So, I stood on the sidewalk as the photographer went about his work. And I watched the volunteers, who didn't care if they were on camera or not -- they were there to gut a home and pile the remnants into a massive pile on the sidewalk.
But as I stared at that pile growing higher and higher, I noticed something different. On top of this pile at 5130 Cameron Blvd. was a woman's red hat. A fancy hat. The kind many women would recognize as a "going to Sunday meeting" hat. I started to wonder about the woman who'd worn it and her relation to the homeowner. Did she sing in the choir? Had she made it out alive? Had she been a famous R&B singer in the 70s? Did she have a son who was stoic, but perhaps memorable in his own way? There was a story there in that hat, I was sure of it. I looked at it, proud, red and jaunty -- sitting amid a pile of gray.
And then, I couldn't help but think of the Holocaust epic "Schindler's List," shot in black and white and told in shades of gray. All except for the little girl in the red coat -- a symbol of humanity, hope, individuality -- her image, unmistakable and unforgettable in the middle of an overwhelming number of terrible images.
If I'm being melodramatic here, forgive me. But I'm struck by the fact that long after my assignment here ends, this is the lesson I'll carry with me. And I hope to share it with those of you who sometimes feel you've already heard the story of New Orleans a thousand times.
If you listen hard enough or look close enough, you'll realize that everyone's story here is different, poignant, and important. I'll never get to tell you each one of those stories, and on this particular day, I didn't even get the chance to tell the story at 5130 Cameron Blvd. But as the photographer packed up his camera and we nodded goodbye to the volunteers and the PR people, I did want to tell one person that this story was important. So I walked over to another figure who was standing on the sidewalk staring at the debris pile -- the homeowner. I shook his hand, thanked him, and wished him good luck.